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The Precession: Musings on the digital Dust Bowl

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Performance artists Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey, both strongly influenced by the encyclopedic multidisciplinary Goat Island Performance Group, take on the night sky, digital technology and John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl-era sensibilities in relation to the current recession in The Precession – dubbed “an 80-foot-long Internet Art Performance Poem” – March 4-6 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. They incorporate dancers, astronomy, Twitter and President Roosevelt’s New Deal projects into a meditation on the ways communities are being formed across social networks. It’s a multilayered piece that invites audiences into the Hyde Park Art Center’s gallery and catwalk to go on a journey through time and space. The performance will be synchronized with the 10-screen facade projection using an open-ended structure that repeats approximately every hour (and therefore twice per evening). Visitors may enter or leave at any point.

Before we talk about the movement, let’s address the jumping-off point. Jeffery and Morrissey visited the Hoover Dam and were struck by the merging of a large-scale labor endeavor and celestial matter. How did they get that from an engineering marvel in Nevada? Flanking the Dam are two pre-modernist winged workmen sculptures by Oskar J.W. Hansen. They commemorated Roosevelt’s dedication of the Dam in 1935 and are seated within a complex celestial map. This map examines the notion of Precession, which refers to changes in the earth’s axis of rotation. It also singles out the position of the pole star, which is aligned with the earth’s axis. The sculptor had an intriguing futuristic intent: If extraterrestrials were to discover this map, they would be able to determine the date and time the Dam was dedicated.

Granted, the whole thing sounds almost too cosmic to process. But Jeffery and Morrissey pull it together by having six dancers embody the earth on a tilt and, later, circulate around a professional fire twirler as the sun. The dancers are also positioned in relation to their individual star digitally projected from above. They’re even joined by a physicist giving a lecture. Then science and labor join hands. The performers, dressed as denim-clad laborers, don inflatable wings and move to opposite sides of the space. They recite text that they receive in earphones. These words are Twitter updates culled live from within a mile-radius of the Hyde Park Art Center and the vicinity of the Hoover Dam. So the performers themselves become a collective chorus of the people. The piece slowly evolves into a memorial to the workers killed during the Dam’s construction. The dancers’ harsh thrusts suggest backbreaking tasks; they position shovels to replicate rays of light; a single-file processional has each dancer holding a feather. The overall experience parallels past and present community building. It also examines ways the Web, Twitter and other social media are reshaping our collective consciousness.

The Precession takes place March 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; and March 6 at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 773-324-5520 or visit www.hydeparkart.org. More info: www.markjefferyartist.org or www.judisdaid.com.

Also playing…

RE/Dance Group remounts Michael Estanich’s The Lonely Visitors, a post-modern ensemble work that tosses together chairs, an epic soundtrack and the messiness of the human heart, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater, 3035 N. Hoyne. Tickets: $15. www.brownpapertickets.com. More info: www.redancegroup.com.

Jonathan Meyer of Khecari Dance Theatre performs “Y”, his first evening-length solo, an ongoing exploration of his shifting relationship to dance over the last 20 years, March 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. at Overdier Hall, 1545 W. Morse. Tickets: $8-$12. He incorporates text, as well as an original score by Christopher Preissing. www.brownpapertickets.com. More info: www.khecari.org.

Dance Union continues its experimental dance series with Words/Text and Movement, March 5 at 8 p.m. at the Menomonee Club’s Drucker Center, 1535 N. Dayton. Tickets: $10-$12. http://danceunion.tumblr.com.

DanceWorks Chicago hosts an intimate Dance Chance in one of the studios of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.: March 8 at 6:30 p.m., with new choreography by David Lakein, Audrey Karim and Tara Alperin. Tickets: $3. www.danceworkschicago.org.

Lucia Mauro hosts Beautiful Body: Women, Dance & Self-Expression on March 7 at 7 p.m. at the Instituto Cervantes, 31 W. Ohio St., in celebration of International Women’s Day – a discussion with Julie Nakagawa, artistic director/cofounder of DanceWorks Chicago, and Alejandra Gonzalez, cofounder of Piel Morena Dance. Free and open to the public. Call 312-335-1996 or visit www.chicago.cervantes.es.

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